The Google Home Hub is aptly named.
It’s certainly not the first product to lay claim to the term “hub” but it might be the first product to embody the word so fully. It’s not centered around a single use case — like, say, the Facebook Portal is built around video chat — but instead brings together the functionalities of several different products: smart speaker, tablet, digital photo frame, and smart home controller.
The Home Hub is technically in the category of “smart display,” but that doesn’t capture what it does any better than “smart speaker” describes an Amazon Echo. The Hub is more of an “ambient computing enabler,” with some interesting extras that the display bestows.
At first glance, you might think the Home Hub is Google’s answer to the Echo Show, and it kind of is, but Google explicitly didn’t include a camera on the device. The reasoning here, according to product lead Diya Jolly, is simple: privacy. Since Google wants the Hub to be appropriate for every room in your house — especially the bedroom — it didn’t want to even hint that this product could ever be literally watching you.
While you might think this is an overreaction to the constant criticism Google endures over privacy issues, it’s arguably a wise move. Even Amazon, which has generally been immune to many of the data scandals of the past year, raised eyebrows when it unveiled its Echo Look product, which is essentially a connected camera for the bedroom. Lots of people simply won’t put a permanent camera in their most personal spaces, no matter what.
“Our take was: there are enough devices with a camera,” Jolly told me in an interview after the event. “Let’s give users a device they feel comfortable putting anywhere in their home. And if they want a device with a camera, there are a bunch of Google Assistant devices with a camera.”
The Google Home Hub is small. Some might call it cute, but the 7-inch screen is tiny by today’s standards for anything that isn’t a phone. If that seems odd to you, remember: This isn’t supposed to be a screen you linger over to make calls or watch movies. The onscreen content is meant to complement whatever real-world task you’re trying to accomplish. If I want help fixing a cabinet, it’s more important I get the right YouTube video than whatever the video quality is.
Not that the quality was bad. Looking closely at the Home Hub shortly after Google’s big hardware keynote, I thought the colors, resolution, and brightness were all just fine — certainly on par with what I’d expect from a nice tablet or laptop these days. Google hasn’t given the official resolution, strangely, but we’ll look more closely in our full review of the device
One of the features Google talked up is Ambient EQ, which lets the screen automatically adjust color and brightness to match the room light. Google had three separate demo rooms set up, and the Hub looked perfectly ordinary in each — which was the point. Ambient EQ helps the Hub blend, preventing the screen from obnoxiously “screaming” at you visually. In a dark room with the lights out, the Hub displayed the time as a couple of ghostly, barely there floating numbers, with none of that telltale room glow that most lit screens create.
Ambient EQ helps a lot in the feature I was impressed with the most during my hands-on: being a digital picture frame. From a distance, in a side-by-side comparison with a physical photograph, it was hard to tell which was the Hub and which was the print (up close, the glossy reflection of the screen gave the Hub away). Even better, the Hub again didn’t exhibit any tacky, look-at-me glow — probably the worst thing about digital picture frames of old.
“As your home gets full of devices, it begins to feel less like a home,” says Jolly. “Bright screens are not very pleasant to the eyes, which takes away from home ambiance. With Ambient EQ, we wanted to make sure the device blended into your home — that it was there when you need it, and it wasn’t there when you didn’t need it.”
I also have to give Google props for this photo innovation: a (potentially) better way to display vertical photos on a horizontal screen. Instead using black bars or a blurred background, the Hub will instead put two photos side by side. Seems dumb and too simple, but the Google twist is that it’ll intelligently make sure the photos are related — by place, time, subject, etc. — without you having to do anything. It’ll also make sure those screenshots and blurry pics aren’t part of the mix.
Of course, one of the key things about the Hub is that it’s a hub, able to control smart home functions integrated with Google Home. That’s expected of course, and I saw canned demos of Home doing all kinds of things like helping with recipes in the kitchen to locking your front door. The real test with smart home stuff is in the details, such as how well the Hub’s microphone array can hear commands from across a room and to what extent Google Assistant can account for variations in natural language.
I didn’t get a chance to do much with the Home Hub, audio-wise, but it doesn’t seem to be looking to compete with serious speakers like the Google Home Max. Audio on a YouTube recipe came through loud and clear in an 8 x 8-foot demo cube, but I have serious doubts how well it will be able to compete for attention in a loud kitchen. Again, I’ll have to wait until I can fully test it to know for sure.
Despite its diminutive size, Google’s first official smart screen is a compelling device. It’s probably not as useful as the demos make it seem — you’ll need to buy pretty fully into both the smart home and Google itself to really make full use of it. But without the camera, it’s an easier sell to get it into more rooms. And if, in the end, Google has only succeeded in creating a digital picture frame that isn’t garbage, $149 sounds like a steal.